Published: 06:00, 19 September 2021
| Updated: 10:16, 20 September 2021
Peter Dawson vividly remembers visiting Blantyre House prison in the 1990s as a Home Office official.
Usually, on such prison visits, one might eat a sandwich in the governor's room for lunch, Mr Dawson, now director of Prison Reform Trust, says.
But Blantyre, on the outskirts of the rural Kent village of Goudhurst, was different.
"At Blantyre we went and had lunch with the staff and prisoners eating in the same dining hall, which was brilliant. The prison expected to operate as a community."
It was once lauded as an "example of all that is best about the prison service" with a "reputation for excellence" in resettling offenders.
But the facility was given a damning report in 2013, which revealed it had "unprecedented problems with drugs, bullying and violence", and a couple of years later it was temporarily closed, followed by its permanent closure in 2019.
KentOnline has delved into the history of Blantyre, hailed as on "one of the jewels in the prison service crown" in 2010, and explored its role in the small community of Goudhurst.
In 1987, Blantyre House opened as a semi-open resettlement prison.
It was responsible for the resettlement of about 120 long-term offenders, including those nearing the end of life sentences.
The prison housed a mixture of inmates with a low-risk of escape (category C) and those who could be trusted (category D).
The building was originally a country house before opening as a training farm for a Fegan's Boys Home.
The home was taken over by the prison commission in 1954 and used as a detention centre for young offenders.
Marian Sergeant has lived in Goudhurst all her life and can still see the prison from her bedroom window.
She remembers regularly getting the coach to school and passing the young offenders working in the farm, digging for vegetables.
Decades on, as a member of various local committees, Marian would deal regularly with the Blantyre prisoners, who would paint signs and do other odd-jobs for the village.
The prison prepared inmates for their release, with education programmes and temporary release for work in the area.
Peter Wright worked at Blantyre for 23 years as a maintenance engineer, joining two years after it opened as a resettlement prison, and a new governor, Jim Semple, was appointed.
Mr Wright, now 72, said: "It was excellent when I went there. They had a new governor, he had a vision... to de-institutionalise them.
"We had a regime, we used to educate them, they used to go out into the community, they would help at old people's homes.
"It took off, it worked so well we used to make national headlines, we had such a low reoffending rate, it proved it was working.
"He (Jim Semple) got several awards, he had Princess Anne down here to present him with one."
Mr Wright says programmes like the one at Blantyre were rolled out "throughout the country".
As well as looking after the building, Mr Wright, from Cranbrook, was involved in community projects, such as the local museum, and would take inmates with him for jobs.
"I used to say 'before I take you out I want your assurances you're not going to mess about or do a runner' and they didn't," he remembers.
There were a wide range of activities and courses on offer to prepare people for the outside world, from carpentry to literacy and art.
Desmond Liddicoat, now 91, was a Blantyre Prison officer for more than 30 years, first when it was a young offenders institute and then during its later role.
He remembers engineering, fencing and watch making classes.
"It was a golden opportunity for education there," he said.
Prisoners would come back and visit, Mr Wright says, adding: "Some would say 'I am married now, I have got my own house', and that was great because you knew you were part of it, that was a great feeling."
Blantyre received praise throughout the 1990s.
In 1992, Judge Stephen Tumin labelled the establishment: "An example of all that is best about the Prison Service".
And in 2000, Sir David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of prisons, praised the governor and staff for their "consistent, innovative and courageous approach".
According to a Home Affairs Committee report prepared after a large scale prison inspection in 2000, just 8% of prisoners released reoffended within two years against a national average of 57%.
The report adds that prisoners spent 43.6 hours a week on "purposeful activity", compared with a target of 36 hours and a prison service average of 23 hours.
A contributing factor to Blantyre's success was perhaps that officials could select their inmates.
The independent monitoring board's damning 2013 report on the prison said that until recently men had to meet Blantyre House's criteria for acceptance, namely, no legal incidents in the six months prior to transfer, and no convictions for arson, sex offences or terrorism.
"Everyone wanted to go to Blantyre, they used to come to Maidstone once a month to pick maybe three or four people.
"They didn't care what your previous convictions were, they didn't care how serious, they picked the right people so they had the right balance," Jack Murton, a former Blantyre inmate who recently held an art exhibition explained.
"They would select who went there and if people didn't respect the trust placed in them they would be moved out of Blantyre," said Mr Dawson, who also formerly worked as a prison governor.
"In a sense places like Blantyre can only operate because other places didn't operate like that," he added.
The inmates weren't locked up at night and were allowed to have cars, so they could leave the prison for their jobs.
To an extent, personal possessions to furnish rooms were allowed and security measures were deliberately not as strict as other category C prisons.
There was a no drugs and no fighting policy and if you were caught doing either, you were out.
"If you had a fight you were gone, no ifs and buts. That's what made it so safe," said Mr Murton, who spent three years at the prison in the late 1980s after he was jailed for armed robbery.
Mr Dawson says there was only one other prison like Blantyre, which has now also closed.
"It would be fair to say it was admired hugely in some quarters and viewed with great suspicion in some quarters, as most innovative things are," he said.
In 1995, according to the Home Affairs report, a car driven by a prisoner killed a civilian in the local area and in later years the prison hit the headlines after further crimes carried out by inmates while on day release.
There was the 31-year-old serial burglar, who was let out unsupervised for medical appointments and used the opportunity to commit further raids.
In 2011, a convicted killer was jailed once more after carrying out 11 raids on bookmakers, while he was on day release from the prison.
Speaking to local figures however, it seems such stories cloud the overall picture.
Cllr Craig Broom, of Goudhurst Parish Council, said: "They did quite a lot in the community, it was part of the final stages of their release. It was just part of life."
Mrs Sergeant, 75, said: "The prisoners used to come out into the community to paint village halls or do jobs in schools when the children weren't there. They were a great asset to the community."
Not all the prisoners were so well behaved, however. On one occasion Mrs Sergeant found inmates trying on costumes belonging to the amateur dramatics society while painting the village hall.
One man was trying on an elegant "navy school jacket", and even asked if he could keep it.
On another occasion inmates were responsible for helping old ladies at an event to celebrate the new millennium but "abandoned" their charges and headed to the pub, Mrs Sergeant said.
"We had to ring the prison and they had to come and pick them up," she remembers.
The successful years at the prison, it seems, were not to last.
In May 2000, the governor, Eoin McLennan-Murray, was abruptly removed from his post and the same evening 84 prison officers from other facilities were sent into the prison to conduct a full search.
The search was prompted after concerns over possible security breaches, and that prisoners may be involved in criminal activity.
The prison service's own internal report however showed that the raid led to "no significant" finds.
Then, in 2013, the damning annual report from the independent monitoring board, laid bare the problems at Blantyre.
It seemed "assailed from all sides with problems, many of which were not of its own making," the report read.
There were two stabbings and a sex assault within the year and seven men absconded from the prison in just 12 months - with five committing further offences while on temporary licence.
The report did add that "these events have to be seen in the context of the many successful releases on temporary licence.
Staff morale was at rock bottom and the number of men engaged in "purposeful activity" had fallen.
In January 2015, the prison was temporarily closed, with the Ministry of Justice denying the closure was permanent.
However, four years later, Goudhurst residents were informed of the facility's permanent closure.
The future of the building is now unclear. It was used as a training venue for a short period but closed three years ago.
When asked about its future, a prison service spokesman said: “Blantyre House is not being used for training purposes and no decisions have been made on the future of the site.”